A taste of kimchi, a glimpse of DMZ
South Korea is familiar to many, thanks to its cars, mobile phones, football and Winter Sonata but there are still surprises waiting to delight visitors to its shores. -The Star
By JESSIE TEH
CLEAR blue skies greeted us when my group landed at Seoul's Incheon Airport. We were told by our guide, Mike, that we were lucky as the weather had been miserably wet the last few days. Despite the good weather, it was still a bit chilly at 15 degrees Celsius, especially when the wind blew.
Nevertheless, it was a refreshing and welcome wind of change from the heat of Malaysia as we looked forward to five days of an enlightening, enduring and enchanting trip that took us from South Korea's ancient past to its ultra-modern present.
Also on the programme was a visit to the DMZ (De-Militarised Zone), the narrow buffer strip set up in 1950 that was to divide the Korean peninsula into two and cause the death of millions. Today, it is the most heavily guarded border in the world. Reading about it is one thing. Actually going down into a tunnel that the North Koreans dug to intrude into the South is an out-of-this-world feeling.
One of the highlights of Seoul, and source of great pride to the citizens, is ... a stream!
But Cheonggyecheon is not just any ordinary brook but a waterway which had been lost to modernisation and only "found" again recently.
As Seoul rushed headlong towards becoming a modern metropolis in the latter half of the 20th century, the stream was gradually covered over with concrete and even had an elevated highway built over it.
President Lee Myung-bak had initiated the project to restore the stream to its former glory and, today, its picturesque fountains, stone walkways and a park that flanks both sides of the stream are a monument to environment-friendly urban renewal as well as a tourist attraction.
To see how royalty in Korea used to live, we toured Gyeongbok Palace, which means Shining Happiness.
It was built by King Taejo in 1395 but was destroyed during the Japanese invasion of 1592. It was rebuilt to its original grandeur in 1865.
More misfortune befell the complex after Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and, today, only a dozen structures of the 200 buildings remain on the palace grounds.
All visitors to South Korea should make time to visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), a narrow strip of land running across the Korean peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea.
It is 248km long and approximately 4km wide, and is the most heavily fortified border in the world. And, since the Korean War from June, 1950 to July 1953 ended with an armistice between the United Nations forces fighting on the side of South Korea and the Communist North, it is technically still a war zone.
To visit the DMZ, tourists must first apply for admission passes. At the entrance, all passports were carefully cross-checked by soldiers against their list of approved visitors.
We disembarked at the Dorasan station, the northernmost station. It will be the first stop to Pyongyang if talks to unify the two Koreas succeed.
We stored our belongings (including all cameras since photography is strictly prohibited), in a locker at the entrance of the tunnel and donned helmets.
A train took us down to one of four underground tunnels which the North Koreans had drilled and blasted through limestone, intruding 400m into South Korea before being discovered.
As the train moved steadily down, it got cooler and the wall was wet with vapour. Some parts of the tunnel are quite low, so mind your head.
When trudging through the tunnel, visitors are reminded to be extra careful as the floor is wet and slippery. All the tunnels run in a north-south direction and do not branch off. The guide pointed out that the tunnel sloped 3 degrees to the north so that water would not stagnate. We finally reached a point barricaded with barbed wires. From a small opening, it is possible to peek into North Korea.
Later, we stopped by the Dora Observatory situated on top of Dorasan (Mount Dora). The observatory looks across the DMZ and visitors can catch a rare glimpse of the reclusive North Korean state through binoculars.
Take heed, though, that photography is strictly prohibited once you pass the yellow demarcation lines.
I got a bit carried away and was snapping away when a soldier ordered pictures of the forbidden areas to be deleted. Still, I was glad we are now in the digital era. In the old days, my roll of film would have been confiscated!
Heyri Art Centre
For art lovers, the Heyri Art Centre in Paju City, Gyeonggi-do Province, is a must. It is an arts and culture community established by writers, painters, film producers, architects, musicians, and artists from various fields.
There are at least 40 museums, galleries, music halls, and bookstores, and even one just for children.
We only spent about an hour there and it was difficult to tear some of us (ahem, meaning the men) away from the erotic art section.
You'll be excused for thinking we were visiting a tiger sanctuary but no, there were no striped big cats here.
Located in Gyeonggi province, Tiger World is South Korea's first indoor snow centre which features a 270m main ski slope and another 70m training slope.
Luckily, many of us had gone equipped with thick clothing and gloves to frolic in the snow. Alas, the cold was too much for some cameras, which simply shut down, so we have no photographic record to share.
None of us mustered the courage to ski but we did have fun snowtubing down the side slope.
Ah, what is a visit to Korea without stepping foot on its famed Nami Island, an exquisitely decorated island made famous by the popular TV series, Winter Sonata.
I confess, I haven't watched the drama but I still fantasised as I posed next to life-sized sculptures of the actors, Bae Yong Jun and Choi Ji Woo.
Nami Island is named after General Nami, a brilliant soldier who passed the military service examination at the age of 17 and suppressed a riot during King Sejo's reign. He was then promoted to Minister of National Defence at the age of 27 but he died in disgrace the following year, denounced as a traitor after King Yejong's enthronement. His grave can be found on the island.
A 15-minute cable car ride took us to one of the view decks on Mt Sorak, the third highest mountain in the country with the main peak at 1,708m above sea level. From there, climb a series of steps to one of the mountain's peaks. It was worth the huffing and puffing because the view was, well, breathtaking.
Located in the middle of the city, Insa-dong is a paradise for shoppers with a passion for antiques, art and calligraphy. The shops here are popular with all age groups, because each store is unique.
Dongdaemun Market, which opens from 8pm to 5.30am, is a must for all shopaholics. It is not unlike our night markets but it's better to visit the market after 10pm as many stalls open late. The Koreans are not fans of bargaining, so keep haggling to a minimum.
Kimchi is the soul of Korean cuisine. The spicy pickled cabbage accompanies every meal and it is added to all types of food, such as soup and fried rice.
We tried the seafood kimchi steamboat, which served up a taste of Fear Factor when the octopus tried to crawl out of the simmering pot. The braver ones took on the challenge to savour the wriggly tentacles.
Authentic Korean kimchi is spicy hot, so be prepared to sweat it out.
Another specialty of the Koreans is ginseng chicken soup, which is served piping hot in an earthenware pot. The serving is quite big, so it might be prudent to share.
As we slurped our way through the soup, a pleasant surprise awaited us. The chicken was stuffed with glutinous rice, young ginseng shoots, and jujubes.
House of Traditional Korean Culture
Those keen to learn the secrets to Korean cuisine should opt for the one-night or two-night stay at the House of Traditional Korean Culture in Baekokpo-ri.
The facade of the building is typical Korean architecture while the interior has been converted to a big modern kitchen where cookery classes are conducted.
Visitors spend the night in bedrooms furnished in traditional Korean style, sleeping on mattresses on the floor and although there is no air-conditioning, the rooms are cool. Interestingly, the floor is warm. The bathrooms are fitted with a sink and shower but there are no water heaters.
In the room where kimchi is fermented stand rows and rows of jars. The walls are cold to the touch. The room temperature is always constant, whatever the season.
As if on cue, the morning we were to leave for the airport, it started raining again. It was obvious that Korea would miss us, quipped the guide.
The feelings are mutual; I will miss Korea. Gamsa hamnida ("thank you" in Korean) for the memories.
The five-day trip to Korea was sponsored by the Korea Tourism Organisation and Malaysia Airlines. Malaysia Airlines flies to Seoul five times weekly from Kuala Lumpur and twice weekly from Kuala Lumpur via Kota Kinabalu.
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